Maryland Democrats and Republicans traded charges yesterday over allegations that one party is trying to buy African-American voters while the other is trying to suppress them.
The exchange of accusations came as both campaigns and outside advocacy groups have stepped up their advertising, recorded phone calls, mailings and other efforts to reach voters in the final days of Maryland's tight contest for governor between Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
But Democratic plans for Election Day in Baltimore City and Prince George's County were in limbo last night when Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. - one of the state's top elected Democrats - questioned the party's strategy for using paid workers tomorrow.
The party's leaders had spent much of yesterday morning training hundreds of "nonpartisan" paid Election Day workers in Baltimore, under the careful scrutiny of State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli and Republican attorneys.
After initially planning to pay the workers up to $100 to canvass neighborhoods on behalf of Democratic congressional candidates, party officials said yesterday that such workers would be allowed only to encourage people to vote without advocating for any political parties or candidates - a compromise in the face of state election laws banning the practice of "walking-around money."
Republicans say they still believe the Democratic plans are illegal - a throwback to a practice banned in the 1970s - and are waiting for an opinion from Curran's office today.
Last night, Curran said the opinion will say that state election laws dealing with walking-around money apply to all elections in Maryland, including those for federal office. But nonpartisan paid workers would technically be legal.
"The person could not wear a T-shirt or in any shape or form express favor for a candidate," Curran said. "If that did happen, it would be illegal."
Nevertheless, as a statewide Democratic candidate up for re-election tomorrow, Curran said he thinks the party should reconsider its plans - because paid workers also could be prosecuted if they advocated even slightly for a candidate.
"Something may be very narrowly legal, but that doesn't make it a good idea," he said. "As a candidate it would be my advice that it would not be a good thing to do. It's not that I don't want people to vote, but I would recommend using volunteers. That is the safer thing to do."
'Difference of opinion'
A spokesman for the Democratic Party said last night that its officials had not seen the ruling but intend to go forward with their plans.
"We have a difference of opinon," said spokesman David Paulson. "However, we will strictly adhere to both the finding of the attorney general and the letter of the law. We had always planned to follow the letter of the law."
Earlier in the afternoon, Democratic leaders sought to shift attention away from their party's Election Day plans to what they described as efforts by Republican activists to discourage African-Americans from voting.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said they are concerned that plans by members of the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police to serve as GOP poll workers may intimidate city voters. O'Malley said he has called both the police commissioner and FOP president to warn against intimidation.
"We will not tolerate in the city of Baltimore any implied, any overt, any intimidation at all at the polling places," O'Malley said.
Cummings also held up a flier that Democratic campaign volunteers said they found posted in some Northwest Baltimore neighborhoods, including on the doors of Pimlico Middle School.
The unsigned flier read: "URGENT NOTICE. Come out to vote on November 6th. Before you come to vote make sure you pay your parking tickets, motor vehicle tickets, overdue rent and most important any warrants."
"Of course all of us know this is an effort to stop people from coming out to vote," said Cummings, who noted the election is Nov. 5. "We don't know exactly who put this out, but you must agree it is an interesting combination. We are very clear we will not allow this to happen."
Democratic party officials said they intend to pass out fliers in city neighborhoods with a toll-free phone number for voters to call to report any suspected intimidation. The line is to be staffed by 100 lawyers.
Townsend - who did not attend the news conference but joined the other Democratic leaders at a voter rally later in the afternoon - also worried about intimidation. "If [police officers] are being used to intimidate people, it is outrageous," she said.
But Republicans and FOP officials said they have no plans to discourage African-Americans from voting and are outraged by the Democrats' allegations. They said they are unaware of the flier and questioned its authenticity.
"They have absolutely no evidence to support these allegations except fliers printed within their offices," said Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver. "To suggest on the Sunday before the election we are attempting to suppress the African-American vote is ridiculous. It's an effort to change the subject that they are the ones trying to buy the African-American vote."
Gary McLhinney, president of the Baltimore FOP, said off-duty members will spend Election Day at poll sites with city firefighter union members handing out cards on their endorsement, the first time the city police union has backed a Republican gubernatorial candidate in more than three decades.
"We've been working polls for 20 years for Democrats, including Parris Glendening and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in 1994," McLhinney said yesterday. "The first time in 35 years we've endorsed a Republican for governor, and now we're getting accused.
"I cannot believe that the lieutenant governor would insult police officers in this manner and try to inhibit us from exercising our constitutional rights," he said.
A flood of ads
Yesterday's accusations came as both gubernatorial campaigns stepped up their efforts in advance of Election Day tomorrow.
Voters are receiving a flurry of recorded phone calls, featuring such well-known political figures as former President Bill Clinton, first lady Laura Bush and former vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp.
All types of ads are flooding radio stations, particularly those with many African-American listeners.
In one spot, Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, tells listeners that Ehrlich "voted against real gun control, even voted against civil rights, voting rights and help for minority businesses."
In another, Monica Turner Steele - ex-wife of heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson and sister of GOP lieutenant governor candidate Michael S. Steele - urges voters to make her brother Maryland's first statewide African-American elected official.
Townsend's campaign also began airing a radio spot from O'Malley telling voters that she would be the best choice to help Baltimore.
Both campaigns also have unveiled new television spots attempting to hammer home their campaign themes. Townsend uses a series of brief testimonials from voters saying Ehrlich is too conservative for Maryland, while Ehrlich uses video footage of Gov. Parris N. Glendening to link the lieutenant governor to the unpopular outgoing governor.
Emphasis on turnout
With polls showing the race to be close, both campaigns say voter turnout tomorrow will be crucial. Townsend's focus is in Prince George's and Montgomery counties and Baltimore City, the three heavily Democratic jurisdictions that are expected to provide much of her support.
But with minority voters less likely to vote in nonpresidential election years, Democrats are organizing sophisticated operations to get voters to the polls - including the plans to pay Election Day workers.
At Western High School yesterday, hundreds of people drawn by the promise of being paid $100 registered with party officials and then boarded vans and buses that took them to various city neighborhoods. The workers were to be trained in those neighborhoods yesterday on what they should do on Election Day.
Montanarelli, the state prosecutor, visited the training, where Democratic Party officials and lawyers assured him activities by paid workers will be limited to strictly nonpartisan get-out-the-vote efforts.
The prosecutor - who made it clear he was not happy with the Democrats' tactics - said he would prosecute people if the law is violated.
"If I get complaints, we are going to prosecute them." Montanarelli said.
But Republicans continued to criticize the plans and said they may take other steps.
"We want to do anything we can to make sure we are playing on a level playing field," said Ehrlich's campaign manager, James C. "Chip" DiPaula.